When it comes to the recycling of discarded high-voltage batteries from electric vehicles, Volkswagen is at the forefront. We show how the second life of a battery might look – and which other efforts Volkswagen is making on the path towards carbon-neutral mobility.
Keeps on giving despite intensive use
Battery-operated vehicles have real staying power – due also to the durability of modern battery systems. Within the scope of the warranty and the conditions listed therein, Volkswagen AG therefore guarantees the customer buying a brand new battery electric vehicle (BEV) with an electric drive that the usable capacity of the battery will not fall below 70 percent within eight years (or up to 160,000 kilometres driven, whichever comes first) as long as the vehicle is used correctly.
But even the best high-voltage battery will reach the end of its service life at some point. After all, it has to do a lot: drive several tonnes of weight, absorb new energy through recuperation during braking, make an intensive short stop at the quick-charging station from time to time, then charge again for hours overnight at the optional home charging station. All of this places demand on the battery cells.
But despite this, a high-voltage battery is still not ready for the scrap heap at the end of its operational life. Instead, it should be recycled in a closed loop system in which its valuable resources are used as sustainably as possible. Volkswagen has been researching this topic for a decade and has developed a variety of solutions.
Volkswagen does not want to hand over the raw material cycle for the battery at any point. The battery and its raw materials form the basis for the circular economy of future mobility.
Concrete ideas for the second life of batteries
One of these is the re-manufacturing of battery systems – in other words exchanging individual defective components for new ones. Old batteries are therefore reconditioned to drive electric vehicles for many more kilometres. Alternatively, used batteries that are still functional in many cases can be redeployed in other areas. With this type of reuse, the rechargeable batteries are simply removed from the car flooring and can continue to be used, for instance, in flexible energy storage units or mobile charging robots. The batteries then start their second-life phase. Volkswagen is already testing such projects at its plants and in joint projects with municipalities and energy suppliers.
The other Group brands are similarly committed: For example, ŠKODA offers its distributors energy storage units developed in-house, which they can use to store surplus green electricity from their own photovoltaic systems and then use it later for lighting showrooms or for charging electric vehicles. This extends the useful life of the batteries to up to 15 years. And Audi is working with a German/Indian start-up, which uses old e-tron batteries to provide local dealerships with a more reliable power supply.
Old batteries as a valuable source of raw materials
If a second life is no longer possible for a battery, the only thing that remains is recycling. Though the "only" is misleading: That’s because even a discarded high-voltage battery is full of valuable raw materials such as lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and graphite. And all of these materials can be extracted and reused. Let’s take an example: A battery weighing 400 kilos enables recovery of more than 100 kilos of aluminium, more than 100 kilos of electrode material (including lithium, nickel and manganese) and more than 20 kilos of copper.
This is exactly what happens in Salzgitter, where Volkswagen Group Components launched the Group’s first pilot system for recycling discarded vehicle batteries in spring 2020. The employees at the plant can now recycle 3,600 battery systems each year – this adds up to around 1,500 tonnes of raw materials, which can be reused to produce new battery systems. The lasting impact is enormous: not only is the demand for newly mined rare materials reduced as a result of recycling. Significantly fewer carbon emissions are produced also – around 1.3 tonnes per 62 kWh battery, which is produced from recycled cathode material using electricity from renewable sources. And last but not least, recycling pays off both economically and socially by reducing costs in the long term and safeguarding jobs.
“We know that recycled battery raw materials are just as effective as new ones. We can use the material recovered to support the supply of our cell production in the future.”
Greater transparency – also thanks to blockchain
Apart from the high ambitions to develop the battery life into a closed loop system, the Volkswagen Group is likewise committed to achieving greater environmental and social sustainability in terms of the primary extraction of raw materials. That’s because the current recycling volumes are not yet sufficient for the successfully initiated switch to the era of electric mobility. Volkswagen commits its suppliers to high environmental and social standards through a code of conduct so that the recovery of raw materials is handled as carefully as possible for batteries. But that is by no means all: The company is also involved in various programmes for protecting near-natural mining regions, including the Responsible Lithium Partnership and Global Battery Alliance.
Highly innovative technologies, such as blockchain, are also set to be used here in the future in order to seamlessly document the origin and pathways of important raw materials for high-voltage batteries and make the journey transparent almost in real time. As soon as the number of battery returns increases from the end of the 2020s, recycling should finally become the most important source of raw materials. The course for this has already been set in Salzgitter.
“Even after a normal vehicle life of 200,000 to 300,000 kilometres, the battery will remain by far the most valuable component in the car and is likely to be used for several years yet in stationary storage units at the end of the vehicle life. Only then is it – possibly completely – recycled. This creates a sustainable value chain with many new business opportunities, which we will exploit for Volkswagen.“
The 7 steps in battery recycling
The battery systems are totally discharged and examined to see if they can be reused or recycled.
The housing and attachments are removed first and the battery is then dismantled into its individual parts.
The battery modules and placed in a crusher and ground to a fine granulate.
The raw materials need to be 100 percent dry for the next process – the granulate is therefore dried and the moisture removed from wet electrolyte components.
The granulate is screened following drying to create the valuable “black powder” – a mixture of lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and graphite.
Turn on magnet
A strong magnet extracts the magnetic components from the granulate – primarily iron and steel. Non-magnetic material is moreover separated from plastic particles.
Fill big bags
Large bags are filled finally with the separated materials, including the “black powder”, which is separated into individual raw materials according to type by external partners.
News on the topic
Status: 30. November 2021
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